The Right Stuff
Boy, youve got a lot of room in here, Leon Kagarise says as he closes the door of my eight-seat Suburban. You could get a lot of things in here.
Leon, who has clear blue eyes and silver hair and wears a blue striped shirt with a collection of pens sticking up from a pocket protector, is envious of my space. I can tell as we drive to lunch that hes filling it up in his mind, perhaps with old turntables and broken amplifiers, or attic fans and 78s. Anything, really. Hes already filled his house, and now hes filling up a small warehouse with…stuff. Just stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.
But what stuff! Leon is the fellow who made headlines a few years ago when it was discovered that as a young sound engineer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he taped live performances of country bands at outdoor venues in rural Maryland and Pennsylvania. Used music proprietor Joe Lee compelled Leon to dig through his trove and provide him with the pristine reel-to-reel recordings that have been waiting in silence in his Towson, Maryland, house for more than 40 years. (A deal is in the works with the Country Music Foundation to bring the music to market.)
Everyone who was going to be anyone played those weekend music fairs. For $1 a car, families could spend all day in the park, listening to three touring acts alternating sets all day long. And Leon recorded them: Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn (introduced as a recording artist from the Zero label), and their incomparable, if largely forgotten, sidemen. Theyre all here, preserved to near-studio perfection by Leon.
Everyone asks why. And I really dont have a good answer for that, he says. He considers for a moment. Part of it was because I wanted to save as much of the moment as I could because I loved it. I loved every minute of the outdoor parks and all it had to offer. I just tried to preserve as much as I could of it. I did pictures, slides, I did movies, 8-millimeter films, I did recordings of course, and autographs of just about everybody.
Did he do it for future remuneration? I never had any idea of that. No clue, he says flatly.
Did he take the tapes home and listen to them again and again, or did he simply archive them? Some I listened to a lot, like the Stonemans. And the Stanley Brothers I listened to a lot. Some of them I havent heard until Joe showed up and unearthed the whole nest.
Lee has spent the last couple of years tracking down the musicians, most of whom have long since settled into blue-collar lives. The artists are thrilled when Lee calls to ask about a particular session or song. These guys knew they were good, and you can hear it on the tapes, Lee says. But they never recorded anywhere, so they had no proof of how good they were 50 years ago. But they knew it. And now people can hear how good they were.
Leon has an easygoing manner, hes well-spoken, and he hasnt missed church in 30 years. But to see his house…it defies description.
Soledad OBrien on The Today Show, she said, The story is interesting but the house is a disaster. It hurt my feelings, Leon says, his feelings hurt again. You dont say someone is interesting but theyre ugly; its the same way with the house. Its still part of my person, OK? Dont all houses reflect our lives?
After lunch we visit the House of Leon, but we dont get very far. The living room of the ranch-style house is packed from floor to ceiling with stacks of…stuff. Not filth, just…stuff. We can only get five feet inside the door, where Leon backs into his cockpit a low-slung, stuffed armchair surrounded by recording devices. To get further I would have to climb over and around stacks of…stuff, but it seems pointless. I can see what I need to see from here.
Did it complicate his life as his house filled up? Yes it did, he says. My stoves gone, my kitchen tables gone, all I have is a microwave. I can still reach the sink. I have a bed. I have to stumble to get to it, but Im used to it, thats all right.
If I didnt save everything, I wouldnt have all this memorabilia right now. Would I have missed it? I guess not, but its part of my life, part of me a part of me that I want to remember.